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Shahid Afridi: A legend in search of a legacy

Wisden India logo Wisden India 01-03-2016

Twenty years into the business, Sahibzada Mohammad Shahid Khan Afridi has achieved much that many wouldn’t dream of even attempting. Yet, the Pathan hasn’t been able to do what two of his clansmen – Imran Khan and Younis Khan – did: Win a major trophy as captain of Pakistan. He might revise his latest retirement plans, but the upcoming World Twenty20 might just be his last shot at making history, leaving behind a legacy, and also at giving photographers a click they would prize for long.

His is the face that represents the hope and passion of an entire nation. His good looks and charisma can compete with those of supermodels. Fans often bite and scratch to get to Afridi for a selfie when they get a chance, and the adwallahs in Pakistan won’t survive a day without him – bubble gum, shampoo, soft drinks, apartments, long grain basmati rice – Afridi can sell everything. You’ve seen him hitting sixes for fun, or knock the stumps out of the ground and then celebrate with his unique victory mark. You’ve also seen him biting balls and speaking passionately about the problems with Pakistan cricket. Everything except posing with a big trophy.

The portents aren’t great either. The Pakistan team under Afridi hasn’t been too consistent, and his Peshawar Zalmis were dumped unceremoniously from the Pakistan Super League. In the national team, the constant changes haven’t helped, and Afridi’s own performance – just five double-digit scores as captain since the start of 2015 at an average of 15.78 and only ten wickets from 13 games – haven’t inspired a lot of confidence either.

He can still make you buy things, but the faith in his captaincy, and therefore in the team, is at an all-time low.

“Sorry to say but Afridi lacks imagination and he hasn’t been able to get the best out of players. Our bowling is good but our batting lacks teeth and we don’t know who will open,” says Adnan Shakil, a doctor.

One out of two people will typically see things differently. Aamir Jewani, a banker, is that man here. “How many times in the past have we seen one brilliant performance lifting the team,” he asks. “If someone can do that, let’s say (Mohammad) Hafeez, then our bowling is capable of defending any total. However, that one good click in every match is a big question.”

Keeper of the Pashtun pride

Shahid Afridi defines Pukhtoonism; he is the proud ambassador of the Pashtuns. If anyone has any doubt about the ethnic loyalty he enjoys, the packed stadia during the PSL whenever Afridi’s Zalmis played should be answer enough.

But being at the ground doesn’t mean faultlines will be ignored.

“Yaara, Afridi dimaag se nahin khelta (My friend, Afridi doesn’t use his brains while playing),” says Samiullah, one of the many Pashtuns who have tea and snacks shops tucked away in all available nooks and crannies in Karachi.

Realising that I wasn’t just another customer and wanted to talk cricket, Samiullah offered me a steaming cup of ginger Kehwa, and, slapping the dough to make parathas, went on: “We love Afridi and go to the stadium to watch him, but he never performs to his ability. Our customers crack jokes saying ‘Khan saab, your Afridi lost us another game’. He has to end this by winning a cup.”

Samiullah’s uncle Bismillah Khan pipes up in Afridi’s defence. “I think we have pinned way too much hope on the poor boy. He is not the only one playing; there are ten other players and then the coach. Why do you blame Afridi for defeats all the time?”

Muhammad Yousuf, who sells dry fruits for a living, has given up hope completely, and not. “Chhodo, yaar, ab Afridi mein woh pehle jaisa baat nahin raha (Leave it, Afridi doesn’t have it in him any more). These are his last games so he should fight with a big heart like a true Pashtun warrior. He doesn’t have a very strong team but if he can lift his own game, then we can win against India and get the Asia Cup.”

Afridi and captaincy – an unsavoury brew

Once the fastest One-Day International centurion, the holder of the record for the most ODI sixes – 351, and much else … but individual feats are of little value if we are looking to identify Afridi’s legacy.

As captain, his rides have mostly been bumpy. His first stint came in 2010 after the sacking of Mohammad Yousuf following a disastrous tour of Australia. He led the team to the 2010 Asia Cup and in his first three matches as ODI captain, he scored two centuries against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, finishing the tournament as the highest scorer with 384 runs from three matches. But Pakistan didn’t win the trophy.

The only time he led in a Test match, against Australia at Lord’s in July 2010, Pakistan lost by 150 runs. Right after the match he announced his retirement from Test cricket.

The 2010 World T20 in the West Indies could have been the one, but Mike Hussey threw all Pakistani plans out of the Beausejour Stadium in Gros Islet that time in the semifinal. India did likewise in the 2011 World Cup semifinal in Mohali. He was captain on both occasions.

He stepped away then, and then came back, and got the captaincy in T20Is again, but apart from a series win against Sri Lanka, it has mostly been doom and gloom.

Aamir Sohail, the former Pakistan opening batsman and captain, feels Afridi should never have been given the captaincy. “Aggressive players seldom make good captains. Afridi has always had an extravagant style of play and that reflects in his captaincy,” says Sohail. “If as a captain you don’t perform well, you don’t command respect and cannot expect your team to stretch that extra yard to win matches.

“Secondly, when you throw your wicket playing roughly, you attract criticism, and when you attract criticism you start to change your game and that’s exactly when everything starts going against you. Changing the nature of your game kills your talent and that’s what’s happened to Afridi throughout his career.”

Interestingly, while we were chatting, the TV screen in the room flashed the news that Afridi might reverse his decision to retire after the World T20. That elicited a smile from Sohail. “That’s Shahid Afridi, always unpredictable. We have, over the years, accepted him for all the right and wrong reasons. I think he is trying to motivate himself before these big tournaments that ‘okay, I am not doing good, let’s get up and get things rolling’. Moreover, after a long career, he is relying more on the administrators’ decisions if he is good enough for the team.”

For some more thoughts on Afridi’s career, and the trajectory it has taken, I turned to Waheed Khan, a senior journalist.

“There is no doubt about his capabilities but he never utilised them,” suggests Waheed. “He could have gone on to become another (Ricky) Ponting or Sachin (Tendulkar). But he never took his game seriously and matured too late. I still remember seeing him score 141 in the 1999 Chennai Test as an opener. His game should have touched another level from there. But, unfortunately, he never capitalised on his talent.

“His non-serious attitude also reflects in his captaincy, he is more emotional then logical. He understands cricket but doesn’t know how to manage his team and support staff. There was no logic in dropping a senior player like Shoaib Akhtar for the Mohali semifinal. That decision had more to do with Afridi’s personal dislike than Akhtar’s fitness.

“I don’t see him uniting the team, there is too much shuffling. We might click in the Asia Cup but the World T20 will be an insurmountable task.”

Going by all that we have seen over the years, everything Sohail and Waheed say sounds right. But that’s Shahid Afridi, always unpredictable. Maybe these predictions about him as a player and as a captain will prove to be wrong as well. And we will finally get that photograph, while Afridi gets his legacy.

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